A group of librarians led by a Hamilton man is racing against time to preserve inscriptions of centuries-old artifacts and documents currently threatened by ISIS’s destruction across much of Iraq and Syria.

In June, for the first time in 1,600 years, no Christian mass was celebrated in Mosul, Iraq.

“For the first time in the history of Mosul, church bells didn’t ring,” said Colin Clarke, founder and director of the Canadian Centre for Epigraphic Documents at the University of Toronto. “That’s including invasion by the Mongols, by the Arabs, by the Persians, but still this tradition continued. That stopped a month ago.”

To Clarke, the silence suggests a harrowing situation.

Islamic State (ISIS) militants have targeted Christian homes, places of worship and businesses in recent months. Of great concern to Clarke and his colleagues: malicious destruction of engraved buildings, art pieces and architecture that had survived for centuries.

"Being only copies, when these inscriptions are lost, the message that they hold is permanently lost," he said.

'One tries not to dwell on it'

Some of the photographs and rubbings in the collections the centre is processing could be the last remaining evidence of some of the inscriptions and, in some cases, the buildings that housed them. Some of the inscriptions date back to the 7th century.

Clarke works with a team of library scientists, language experts and academics, all of who volunteer for the centre's work. The centre started four years ago to catalogue and conserve the largest collection of Ancient Greek inscriptions in Canada.

Last year, the centre began working on a collection of Syriac documents. Syriac is an international language that was once used throughout much of the eastern world, being transported along the Silk Road. The dialect is related to Aramaic, the language Jesus reportedly spoke.

Inscription from Mosul, Nineveh

A 16th-century inscription from the Chaldean Church of al-Ṭahra in Mosul, Nineveh in Iraq, where ISIS has been targeting Christian buildings and businesses in recent months. (Courtesy of the Amir Harrak collection at the Canadian Centre for Epigraphic Documents)

Many inscriptions convey Christian thoughts and poems. One key collection of Syriac documents comes from a University of Toronto professor and Mosul native Amir Harrak, an expert in Iraqi Syriac inscriptions.

Last month, ISIS seized a 4th-century monastery and reportedly threatened the monks with execution. Soon after, they destroyed the Virgin Mary Church. Another mosque ISIS destroyed in Mosul, in the province of Nineveh, was said to be the burial place of the prophet Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions.

That ISIS would overtake the monastery shocked Clarke. Even the Mongols had apologized in the 13th century for ransacking the sacred place, Clarke said.

Clarke grows quiet as he reflects on the destruction.

“One tries not to dwell on it,” he said.

If we had the inscriptions, ‘they wouldn’t be in danger’

This type of conservation carries inherent challenges. Most of the texts the centre is working to catalogue were carved or etched right into stone or walls.

“I was asked before if we have the inscriptions,” Clarke said. “If we did, they wouldn’t be in danger.”

Even before ISIS's latest move into Iraq, Clarke was already working with copies of inscriptions that no longer exist.

'I was asked before if we have the inscriptions. If we did, they wouldn’t be in danger.'—Colin Clarke, director, Canadian Centre for Epigraphic Documents, University of Toronto

Last summer, Clarke and a colleague had been working all day going through a collection of Harrak’s photographs – taking notes on what the photographs depicted and what the inscriptions said, and sliding them into envelopes.

At the end of the day, as they looked at the last photograph and the last envelope, Harrak came in.

“He saw what was in my hand, and he got quite excited,” Clarke said. “He said to me, ‘Colin, that’s exactly what I was telling you about! That inscription in your hand, that no longer exists. This is the only copy.’”

Harrak went on.

“The church in the photograph, that also no longer exists,” Clarke remembers Harrak saying. “So what we may actually have in that photograph is the only record of the architecture of that building.”

For someone whose training teaches a reverence for rare collections and information, the feeling leaves him speechless.

“Indescribable. Absolutely indescribable. One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.”

Next month, Clarke will travel to India to present at a Syriac conference and to see collections of more Syriac documents. 

Clarke lives in Hamilton and works part-time as a virtual reference librarian for 11 Ontario universities.

The centre operates without funding, Clarke said — a situation he hopes will change soon.

"Everybody involved is doing it because it's the right thing to do."